26 August 2011

Writers are characters, too

Writers are characters, too. Which isn’t to say writers are their characters, though as the late Robert Asprin once said, “You always put a little piece of yourself in every character you write.” But sometimes their real life experiences turn out to be more extreme than anything they put on the page.

For example, Stephen J. Cannell reinvented the television game when in 1979, when he the created the only studio in Hollywood run "by a writer for writers." But to paraphrase the old ad, almost no one believed it when this dyslexic, former high school football player first sat down to type. No one imagined over 1,500 television scripts; over 35 Cannell-produced shows ranging from The A-Team to Profit, The Rockford Files to Wiseguy; and a healthy number of bestselling novels would result. Least of all the writer himself.

Before the Dresden Files, Jim Butcher once worked as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. But he didn’t like that job as much as rodeo stunt riding…until that time when he almost fell off his horse in the middle of a pick-up race and the closest thing to grab was a female rider’s blouse. In front of 15,000 people.

Rachel Caine, bestselling author of the Weather Warden and the Morganville Vampires series, is famously allergic to mammalian pets. That’s why she and her husband, artist R. Cat Conrad, keep lizards. Sometimes, she even brings an electronic version to cons, but I suspect that’s because she’s a true technological wizard and just thinks it’s cool. She’s also written first rate fan fiction as “Julie Fortune”—and sold franchise-approved nonfiction articles and books under her fan fiction pen name.

Ballet dancer and physicist Catherine Asaro sings rock-n-roll and has recorded a CD of songs based on her novel Diamond Star*. Linda Howard traces her fascination with men in uniform to her own desire to fly F-14s, while Anne McCaffrey used personal experiences of second sight and other psychic phenomena to extrapolate what real Talent would be like in the worlds of her Pegasus and Pern series.

Which brings us back to Bob Asprin. The “little piece” we put in isn’t always as obvious as it is with Anne McCaffrey, but it’s there. You probably won’t see Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden going into retail anytime soon, for example. But the targeted sales tactics Jim learned as a salesman chafed his personal sense of honor, and that sensitivity to injustice is Harry’s stock in trade.

Ultimately, every character in every story is the product of the writer’s life—an endless parade of Frankenstein’s monsters stitched together from fragments of memory we might not even recognize as our own. Like Frankenstein’s monster, we can’t always control our characters, either, but we can and should use what we know of ourselves and others to make them almost as interesting as the real thing.

To do any less is to sell our characters—and ourselves—short.

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* Totally off topic but too cool not to mention: They recently found a planet that appears to be a former star compressed into a diamond planet. Shades of Catherine and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "A Diamond as Big as the Ritz".

**Photo information (since I'm not bright enough to insert captions into Blogger):
The top photo shows Rachel Caine and her electronic pet at Dragon*Con 2008.
The second photo shows Catherine Asaro in concert at RavenCon 2010.
These photos and more can be found in my Flickr galleries. I'm not a great picture taker, but I sure take a lot of them.
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